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Consensus Builds To Set National Education Goals

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Washington--A consensus was building last week that President Bush's upcoming education summit with the nation's governors should produce national educational goals and a strategy for achieving them.

In a meeting with John Sununu, the White House Chief of Staff, and Roger Porter, domestic-policy adviser, key governors agreed last week that the summit will aim at producing national goals for school performance and loosening the strings that restrict state use of federal funds.

Earlier in the week, the White House had appeared reluctant to promise that the summit would focus on the need to establish national goals.

Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Gov. Carroll Campbell of South Carolina, who met with the White House officials after hearing from representatives from the education community, also agreed that the Sept. 27-28 meeting in Charlottesville, Va., will focus on six topics.

The topics to be discussed are teaching, especially recruitment and retention of talented teachers; the learning environment, including drugs and crime and the health needs of at-risk children; restructuring schools and parental choice; lifelong learning and worker retraining; higher education and federal student aid; and the roles of federal, state, and local governments in educational improvement.

In addition, the governors agreed to a format that will consist mostly of roundtable discussions closed to the public. Those events that will be open include a speech and a news conference by President Bush, and a welcoming ceremony and closing news conference to feature the governors.

Governors Clinton and Campbell, who are spearheading the governors' planning efforts, had said earlier in the week that the governors favored open meetings.

"I know that [Administration officials] want some candid exchange, and they are worried that if you get 51 politicians in a room, we all have a speech to give," Mr. Clinton said. "But I really trust my colleagues. You have a lot of people who are dead serious about this."

In presummit meetings with the governors and at the White House last week, educators argued that the mission of the summit, which will be held on the grounds of the University of Virginia, should be to help pave the way for a national school-reform agenda.

"I think it is fair to say that what the governors hope will come out of this summit is a plan for the next 10 years that is equal to the challenge we face in education," Mr. Clinton said at a meeting set up by the National Governors' Association. "A national, bipartisan plan [is needed] to make America generally competitive in the development of its people."

"We hope the summit will be at least the beginning of that process,'' he concluded.

Added Mr. Campbell: "In summary, we are looking for output. We've got to judge our system and judge it by some rather strict criteria in establishment of the goals."

Educators who participated joined the governors in calling for a national commitment, led by the President, to making improvement of the educational system a top priority. Participants repeatedly compared the initiative they seek to President John F. Kennedy's vow to put an American on the moon.

The educators also laid out their expectations for the education summit in a meeting with the President and Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos.

Secretary Cavazos promised an effort to "move education to the forefront" and said he hoped for "a commitment at the national level to restructuring the educational system."

Mr. Bush, however, was not forthcoming about his plans and expectations, according to participants in the White House meeting, which included 17 education representatives.

"He didn't indicate in any way what he intended to do," said National Education Association President Keith Geiger. "We talked; he listened."

Before meeting with Mr. Porter and Mr. Sununu, Mr. Clinton said the President had not informed the governors of his agenda, either, but added that he does not think it would be appropriate "to make any negative inference about what has happened so far."

Participants in the White House meeting said Mr. Bush made clear that establishing a national curriculum was not on his agenda. He referred to a recent Gallup poll showing that 69 percent of those surveyed favored a standardized curriculum and said he was "uncomfortable" with the idea--particularly if the federal government were to set the standard.

The educators said they also do not favor specific prescriptions from national leaders.

"We believe the summit ought to be used to look at the big issues," said A. Dean Speicher, president of the American Association of School Administrators, "macro kinds of issues and not micro."

But educators pushed for a national strategy and what Roseann Bentley, president of the National Association of State Boards of Education, termed "a common core of understanding about what the responsibilities of schools are."

"We strongly encouraged [Mr. Bush] to establish a national vision for education across the nation," said Larry Zenke, president of the Council of the Great City Schools. "We also requested that neither he nor the governors try to come up with the how-to's as to how to implement that vision."

"To set national goals is not inconsistent with local decisionmaking," Mr. Zenke said. "We told him that we saw no inconsistency."

In fact, a second major theme voiced by educators last week was that schools and teachers should be given more autonomy and the federal government should partially release its regulatory hold on schools.

An example several educators offered was to establish reduction of the dropout rate as an important national goal but allow state officials and school districts to decide how it can best be achieved.

"Let us decide how to do that and be held accountable for the results," Mr. Speicher said.

While they unanimously backed the idea of broad national goals, many of the educators argued that details should be fleshed out after the summit--when they can be consulted.

"We need to be part of the process," said Patricia Ackerman, president of the National Alliance of Black School Educators, suggesting that Mr. Bush and the governors take a "both/and approach," by offering a list of goals and setting up a process for future discussion.

Another theme stressed by the educators is that national leaders must attack the vexing social problems, such as poverty and poor health care, that result in "damaged children" and threaten to frustrate any attempt to improve the nation's educational achievement.

"This country must be concerned with delivering children to schools who are capable of learning," said Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

Educators also urged an increased federal focus on research and assessment and more funding for education programs at every level of government, even if it requires tax hikes.

Higher-education advocates endorsed the dominant focus on precollegiate issues.

"That focus is proper, since that is where the most crisis exists," said William Gerberding, president of the Association of American Universities. "We are concerned about the quality of students we get."

Some educators and governors have expressed concern that the Administration will use the summit primarily as a public-relations gimmick and a platform from which to push pet ideas like parental choice.

Optimism dominated last week, however, with educators praising the governors' determination to make it a substantive event and Mr. Bush's apparently sincere interest.

"I think that once you pick up this ball, you pretty well have to run with it," Mr. Clinton said. "To try to put it down after the summit is over, when you have vast expectations, you'll have disappointed people, a divided country."

"I think [Mr. Bush] has made a decision that he will have to live with ... and that decision is to assume some personal responsibility for the future of the quality of education in this country," he continued. "I think we have to assume that it is in good faith."

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